Research Experiences in a War Zone
In 1995, many of my colleagues and fellow researchers in the sociology of new religion movements began to express their concern and fascination regarding the treatment of new religions in France. An Italian scholar referred to it as “France’s anticult madness”;1 an American sociologist presented a paper on “the French Sect Wars.”2 Even a journalist writing for Le Figaro (Ivan Rioufol) noted, “there is an anti-cult hysteria in the air … an absurd and useless inquisition.”3 In 1996 a commission appointed by the National Assembly published the Guyard Report on sectes in France, which produced a list of 173 groups—presumed to be dangerous. I was invited to contribute to a volume that criticized this report. With the witty title, Pour en finir avec les sectes,4 it featured the critiques of international scholars who pointed out the many errors in the report pertaining to the particular groups they had studied. The aim was to expose the sloppy research and value-laden approach that informed the report.
By April 1997 I had a collected a large number of media reports from France on the dangers of sectes at my home in Quebec. On the morning of my birthday, April 14, I had wandered into a local francophone bookstore near my house in Montreal, to find something to read with my Sunday morning café au lait —and saw the cover of Paris Match. It depicted a gathering of the Twelve Tribes, men in their beards, headbands, and long shirts; women in modest dresses, their long hair biblically “covered” with headscarves, surrounded by children with their eyes blacked out. I felt concern—and a scholar’s proprietary pang, for this was my group—the subject of four book chapters and six encyclopedia articles I had writ en. It appeared that a tragedy had just taken place in their community in France, called “Tabitha’s Place.” A baby boy had died of a heart ailment, and the parents were in prison, awaiting trial for depriving him of medical care. Later that day, I received a phone call from the Tribes’ lawyer in France, asking me to come to Paris as an expert witness in the case. I accepted, and plunged into an adventure that was at